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Monday, January 10, 2011

#CaBudget: Draconian, Dangerous Cuts For Wildland Firefighting

California budget Cuts to wildland firefighting resources

How soon we forget: The Cedar Fire was one of 15 wildfires throughout Southern California during the "2003 Firestorm" Driven by Santa Ana Winds, the Cedar Fire burned 280,278 acres, 2,820 buildings (including 2,232 homes) and had killed 15 people including one firefighter before being contained on November 3, making it the largest fire in recorded California history

Dangerous: Budget Proposal calls for reducing the number of firefighters on CAL FIRE initial attack engine crews from four to three -- putting them back to staffing levels that existed before massive wildfires charred the state in 2003. It also would shift a significant amount of fire fighting responsibility that CalFire now oversees to cities and counties.

Who takes responsibility?:
Currently, fires are fought by three main entities in California. Within municipal areas, city fire departments respond to blazes. Roughly 50 percent of California's land area is federally owned. There, fire crews from the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies have responsibility.
And on most of the land in between, rural areas across roughly 31 million acres known as "state responsibility areas," CalFire is in charge.

The Cuts: Brown's budget proposes that cities and counties take over more fire fighting responsibility in those areas. It says that $250 million could be shifted from the state fire budget to local agencies, and CalFire's service area reduced.
If that money were shifted, it would represent nearly one-third of CalFire's fire fighting budget from the state general fund.

SRA In the SF Bay Area, roughly half of Santa Clara County is in such areas, including all the land east of Highway 101 and most of the land in the southern part of the county, from Lexington Reservoir to the Summit Road. Large portions of rural Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Alameda counties also are under CalFire jurisdiction and could be affected by the change, which must be approved by state lawmakers.

The reason the state should hand over responsibility for some of its wildland fire fighting is because local governments have in recent decades approved development throughout rural areas of the state, Brown's budget says. And with that building in high-fire-prone areas, counties have created a situation where CalFire responds to more than 50,000 emergency calls a year, many for medical problems that the agency was not originally designed to address.

Details on how much of CalFire's "state responsibility areas" would be shifted to local government won't be known for at least a year, pending a major review by the state Board of Forestry, said Palmer.

Some fire experts reacted warily.

Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Fighters, a statewide advocacy organization for firefighters, said that cutting staff sizes and piling too much responsibility on cash-strapped cities and counties could eventually harm the system known as "mutual aid" in which fire crews respond from all over the state to major wildfires.

"The devil is in the details. Is there going to be a statewide mutual aid system left?" Paulson said. "If you start shrinking and changing things then nobody is going to participate in the system. The whole mutual aid system is on a precipice."

The state's Natural Resources Secretary, John Laird, sought to put the best face on the proposed cuts.

"This Governor is determined to upright California's budget," Laird said. "Fixing the long-term problem requires sacrifice from each Californian--and certainly the Natural Resources Agency--in the short-term. If California is to achieve a long-term vision for natural resources management that plays a role in restoring the state's economy, the governor's plan is the right path."

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****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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